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Draft electoral law provision threatens freedom of expression

(GDF/IFEX) - President Medvedev has presented a draft law to the State Duma equating "any action aimed to instigate, or instigating electors to vote" for candidates or groups of candidates, or against any of these, with pre-election agitation. This means that media outlets will now be under constant threat of closure for any of their publications that is labelled "agitation". A similar law provision was retracted by Russia's Constitutional Court back in 2003.

The draft law is entitled "On the Election of Deputies to the State Duma of the Russian Federation Federal Assembly", and the controversial provision is contained in Chapter 8 dealing with pre-election canvassing.

The Constitutional Court has already acknowledged that any vague or loose interpretation of the term "agitation" is inadmissible because it poses a threat to freedom of expression and everyone's right to be informed. The court passed a ruling to that effect on 30 October 2003 in response to an inquiry filed by a group of State Duma deputies and three individuals - S. Buntman, K. Katanyan and K. Rozhkov. "The use of the 'other such actions' phrase for prohibitive purposes leaves room for similarly loose interpretation of the notion and forms of unlawful agitation and thereby allows for arbitrary application of the relevant legal norm," the court ruling said. "This kind of loose interpretation laying the basis for disciplinary or administrative liability for representatives of media organisations in the course of their professional work contravenes equality under the law and is incompatible with the principle that the gravity of any legal restriction must be checked against the constitutionally approved goals; it thus leads to media freedom infringements [...] and gives law enforcement inadmissibly wide discretion in assessing the performance of media publishers."

Konstantin Katanyan, Foreman of the Guild of Forensic Reporters and Director of the Institute for Political and Legal Studies, was among those who demanded abolition of the relevant law provision in 2003. "It seems the developers of the new draft law have hauled out some moth-eaten old laws to rework them slightly and submit to the President for signing," he told the Glasnost Defence Foundation. "They didn't even bother to change the letter 'g' marking the (abolished) old clause. This is...a clear violation of the legislative provision banning any action aimed to overcome the legal force of a Constitutional Court decision."

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